Another Column at MyShelf.Com

Babe To Teens, Past
A Youth Column
By Jan Fields

Looking At The Pictures

     I love books for young people. A good novel will take me places that adult novels never dare. A beautiful picture book has text that sings. But picture books also have something else very special. They have pictures. Sometimes we forget about the illustrator, who often brings the bulk of the story experience before our eyes. The illustrator tells a story just as surely as the author. When we fall in love with a picture book character, we fall in love with what they do and say – but we also fall in love with their look. Picture books bring us the total character. So this month I wanted to bring you into contact with three picture book illustrators. People I admire for their incredible talent and people I enjoy for their enthusiasm and friendliness.

Brian Lies Has A Way With Animals

     Brian Lies (rhymes with please) is the author/illustrator of Hamlet and the Enormous Chinese Dragon Kite and Hamlet and the Magnificent Sandcastle. He's also illustrated more than a dozen other books including two of my daughter’s favorites: Finklehopper Frog and Finklehopper Frog Cheers. Both Finklehopper books were written by Irene Livingston. Finklehopper Frog was the winner of an International Reading Association/Children's Book Council Children's Choice Award for 2004, as well as an Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Book Award and was included in the Society of Illustrators' "The Original Art 2003" show in Manhattan, featuring children's book artwork. Brian lives in a seaside town in Massachusetts with his wife and daughter. You can see more of Brian’s work at

Jan: What kind of research do you do before illustrating a piece? Do you get to read the book or do you get a synopsis or are you told 'do this kind of thing' from the editor?

Brian: I'll do whatever research is necessary for the illustrations to be accurate, informative and detailed enough to feel natural. In the past, I've contacted ethno-archaeologists at the Smithsonian and the Chicago Field Museum, I've visited farms to sketch animals, and in some cases, I've simply gone through my "clipping morgue" of magazine and newspaper photos, which I've been adding to since I was in college. The Internet is a terrific aid to research, and has put me in touch with experts in the subjects I'm illustrating who can add interesting information that I can use in the artwork.

I can't imagine illustrating something that I haven't read. I don't think you can get a feel for the atmosphere, for the weight, for the details of a story if you haven't read it! I know that some book jacket illustrators aren't given the story to read beforehand, but to me that's a recipe for mistakes. My third-grade daughter loves picking jackets apart-- "The illustrator gave the main character the wrong color of hair!" so I'm aware of how sharp our readers' eyes are!


Jan: Do illustrators appreciate input from writers, or would they rather we stay out of their domain. And if some input is acceptable, what form does it take? phone calls? sketches? meetings?

Brian: If the writing is non-fiction, I'd like to be offered a bibliography or research sources. I may not use them ultimately, but if there's an arcane fact that I have to ferret out, it's a waste of time to have to do the same research that the author did. I enjoy doing research, but it serves the project better for me to spend the majority of my time working on compelling illustrations.

For fiction, I'd rather work with the manuscript alone. I'm being hired for my interpretation of the manuscript as well as any drawing or painting skill, and I feel boxed in or devalued if I get a lot of "illustrator notes" from the author. I'm aware of how hard it must be for authors to release their "children" to an illustrator, knowing that they're going to be changed, and so I take job of illustrating the manuscript very seriously. If the writing is strong, I'm going to see what the author sees (or something very close), and the illustrations will be more in line with what he/she's thinking. I've met or e-mailed with authors after I've done books, but only once during the process (and that was a non-fiction book where I had a question and contacted the author through the editor).


Jan: How has technology made illustrating different for you than it would have been ten years ago?

Brian: I don't use the computer to do my final illustrations, but I do resize and move elements around in rough drawings using PhotoShop. It allows me to try out a lot of rearrangements that I wouldn't have time to try otherwise. It also helps me proof drawings--if you "flip" them (like looking at them in a mirror), a lot of drawing mistakes that you wouldn't notice otherwise pop out at you.


Jan: What tips would you give writers that would help the finished story and illustrations look good on the page?

Brian: I think the most important thing that a writer can do is to write clearly and visually. An illustrator is one of the writer's first readers, and if I'm not excited, amused or moved by the story, my work won't be as strong. Without going into slavish detail, a story should have enough description to lead me in the right direction. A character's voice should be strongly written throughout the story so that I KNOW who the character is, and many descriptions can be folded into things like actions ("his beard waved from side to side as he waddled toward the desk") so that the story continues to move forward.


Jan: What new Brian Lies illustrations can we be watching for?

Brian: The only new work I can really mention at the moment is the cover illustration for Spider Magazine in September, and the cover and an interior illustration for Jan. '06's Ladybug. After that comes Bats at the Beach, which is my third book as writer and illustrator, from Houghton Mifflin in spring, '06.


Finklehopper Frog Cheers
By Irene Livingston
Illustrated by Brian Lies
Tricycle Press; -- March 15, 2005
ISBN: 1582461384
Children's - [Ages 4-8]

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Review by Jan Fields,

      My favorite picture books combine great story with illustrations that go beyond the story to tell little stories of their own. Those are the illustrations that bring the reader back again and again to study those pictures and imagine. Finkelhopper Frog Cheers is a sequel to the prize winning Finklehopper Frog. Finklehopper’s back and this time he’s cheering on his bunny friend Ruby as she enters a race with some leaping competition. The book explores themes of sportsmanship and bullying. The text is slightly less effective than in the first book – the meter isn’t always perfect and the story seems a little unfocused. I also had a little trouble understanding how Ruby’s retort (which didn’t seem overly retortish) was so crushing to the bullies. But, I found the illustrations had the same delightful story quality that I love. My five-year-old daughter loved the squirrel on stilts (and wanted to discuss at length how stilts could effect one’s racing ability), the worm picnic (again, just one small detail in an illustration but it created much discussion) and the reappearance of the millipede in a wheelchair (a character she loved from Finklehopper Frog.) These wonderful detail turn a relatively ordinary text into a sure winner that will create fascinating discussions with your child.

Chuck Galey and the Power of Seasickness

    Illustrators come to their work from all different backgrounds and directions. Chuck Galey took a little side trip toward oceanography before finding his spot in the world of children’s book and magazine illustration. Chuck is the illustrator of two more of my favorite picture books: The Cotton Candy Catastrophe at the Texas State Fair (written by Dotti Endele) and Jazz Cats (written by David Davis). Chuck lives in Jackson, Mississippi with his wife and son. You can see more of Chuck’s work at

Jan: From Oceanography to Illustration -- that's an amazing transition. Do you find you have a burning desire to illustrate a fish book? How did you decide it was worth it to switch from a more secure future financially to the art you loved?

Chuck: First of all, I get seasick... a lot! That was one of the contributing factors about doing something else besides physical oceanography. Growing up in a small farming town in the Mississppi Delta, I guess my boyhood dreams were beyond the horizon. Maybe I saw Oceanography as a way to reach an environment that was totally different than the flat cotton farmland that I grew up around.

In the early 1970's, when ecology was all the rage, some friends and I began to take scuba lessons in a neighbor's swimming pool. This was the closest thing we could come to as far as the ocean. But our hearts were in it and we learned our lessons well.

On several trips, we drove to Greer's Ferry Lake near Heber Springs, Arkansas, high in the Ozark Mountains. In this large mountain lake (400 feet and more in depth), there are islands the size of parking lots that rise up out of the water and stand guard over nearby coves and bays.

We also went on several open water dives off the coast of Florida. The beautiful coral formations and the colorful fish that inhabit them are an artist’s pallet of bright colors. Later, in college, I worked a couple of summers at the Gulf Coast Research Lab in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. We would anchor off the barrier islands in the passes for 27 hours at a time. So I once again came to know open water from all times of the day. That's where the seasickness came in. And, ultimately, I chose to return to art.

When I look back on it now, I think I was in love with the romance of the ocean, rather than the actual science of the ocean. However, my time on the water is cherished and there are several books in mind that do involve sea and island adventures.


Jan: Can you tell us a story from one of your Animal Parts school presentations?

Chuck: When I do school visits around the country, I draw for the kids. One of my activities is drawing on a large newsprint pad with the kids. This is participatory activity I call ANIMAL PARTS. The idea is to take the head of a kid-suggested animal, put it on the body of another animal that a kid suggests. We talk about animals from all over the world: jungle, ocean, backyard, flying birds, insects, etc. The most bizarre looking animals emerge on the page. And we do it all together, right then. That way, the kids can see how a drawing is put together.

I think it is important to have rapport with the students. I do this by talking freely to them. Not down to them. We talk about the animals and where they live as I draw. Many of the students ask how I know how to draw animals. I reply that when I was their age, I drew all the time. It was a natural thing for me to do. The students usually identify with this because that's where they are in their lives.

I also emphasize the fact that when I don't know what an animal looks like, I go to the library and look that animal up in books. Encouragement to use the library for all sorts of things; school project work, research and pleasure reading is the under lying theme of the presentation. I think they understand it through the drawings.


Jan: What media do you work in?

Chuck: Over the years, I've worked in several styles and media, including digital. I seem to have settled on transparent watercolor at the moment. I like the way that I have to plan an illustration through sketches and then do the finished art. This is for my picture book work. Now that I've settled on watercolor, I feel like I can explore that medium for a long time.


Jan: So what’s coming up new from the paintbrush of Chuck Galey?

Chuck: I have two new books coming out that I illustrated; Fun Day in Mrs. Walker's Class by Robert Little (Relde Publishing, November 2005) and Rock-'n-Roll Dogs by David Davis (Pelican Publishing, September 2006).


The Cotton Candy Catastrophe at the Texas State Fair
By Dotti Enderle
Illustrated by Chuck Galey
Pelican Publishing Company -- September 2004
ISBN: 158980189X
Full-color Picture book [Age Level: 4 -8]

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Review by Jan Fields,

   I have always loved tall tales because of the wonderful absurdity of them, so I suspected I would enjoy The Cotton Candy Catastrophe at the Texas State Fair -- and I did. When I read it to my daughter, she loved it, too. I think part of the allure was in the power of the young main character as he inadvertently wreaks havoc over the whole fairgrounds with his cotton candy. It's also a terrific regional story since we get wonderful peeks at the real Texas state fair -- from the 52-foot-tall cowboy, Big Tex, to the largest Ferris Wheel in America, the Texas Star. (My daughter especially giggled at the idea of Big Tex in a cotton candy tutu.) The illustrations are delightful, especially the faces of all the exhibit animals as they are tangled. My daughter's favorites were the haunted house monsters -- she feels not enough picture books manage to slip in a few monsters. If you're looking for a story to teach your child a strong moral lesson, you'll have to pass on this one -- no lessons here, just laughs. This book is just for fun, but on that note, it delivers.

Denise Ortakales Cuts Up

   Cut paper illustration has always fascinated me. It’s so incredibly intricate and I’m amazed that illustrators can combine all those bits of paper to produce art that both tells a story and does it with such vigor. And among cut-paper illustrators, Denise Ortakales is one of my heroes. I fell in love with her work online, then enjoyed it in books like Carrot in My Pocket and Good Morning Garden, then I got to see an actual original piece at a New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Conference and I was simply overwhelmed. To see more of Denise’s work, visit her online at

Jan: Do you find it more challenging to maintain a likeness for a character in your paper sculptures than you would in a sketch or painting or does the three dimensional nature of the art actually lend itself to maintaining a likeness in different poses?

Denise: I find it challenging whether I'm drawing, painting or creating a paper sculpture. It's just difficult period! Sometimes when I'm doing a repeated character I will cut out 2 or 3 heads and then use the one I like the best. I keep a little box of rejected heads from one book that I show the kids when I do school visits. They get a kick out of that.


Jan: Since you send the illustrations to publishers as photographs/transparencies -- what do you do with all these fragile originals? Is your house full of framed paper sculptures? Does you family always know what they are getting for Christmas?

Denise: Yes! My attic is quite full and they're all for sale. I make boxes for each of them out of larger corrugated boxes. This protects them nicely. The stack from my last book was five feet high! I've given a few away to family members and friends but not too many.

I have sold some and donated a couple to the Keene State College Children's Literature Festival Collection. A few favorites are on my walls. I frame some from my books and display these in bookstores when I have a signing or bring them when I do school visits. People really appreciate seeing them in person. I have a few in a gallery right now.


Jan: I noticed the magazine illustrations in your portfolio all come from poetry/illustration matches. How does your approach differ when you're illustrating a poem than when you're illustrating a story, such as the books you've done?

Denise: There isn't much difference, at least not consciously. You look at the text and the amount of space to fill, and look for imagery in the text to fill the space. With a one-page poem, it can get tricky trying to squeeze things in while still giving the text room to breathe. Books are certainly less constricting in that aspect. But as I said, it's all intuitive, some days you have one page to tell your story, other days you have more.

The poetry/illustration images make the best samples, but I've also illustrated a couple of recipes for Cobblestone, and a few activities for Ask and Spider.


Jan: I am blown away that you can create one of these amazing illustrations in just a week. Just as a "for instance" -- how many hours would you put into an illustration like the Christmas card on your site?

Denise: The Christmas card took about a week to do once the sketch was approved, but there may have been many interruptions in that week. Generally my book spreads take 2-4 days depending on the complexity of the imagery. But I also have to work around my photographer’s schedule, which can make a quick turn around difficult.


Jan: So tell me about which of your books are your favorite?

Denise: Good Morning Garden is my favorite of my illustrated books because I like to illustrate nature. The Legend of the Old Man of the Mountain is the first book I've authored so that's kind of different for me. Also, someone else (Robert Crawford) illustrated it, so that was really different, but kind of nice in a weird sort of way.


Good Morning, Garden
By Barbara Brenner
Illustrated by Denise Ortakales
Northword Press -- May 1, 2004
ISBN: 1559718889
Ages: 4 - 8

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Review by Jan Fields,

    In this charming book, a girl makes an early morning visit to her garden and we come along to enjoy the color and wonder. Barbara Brenner’s text is lyrical without being tough for a small child to enjoy. It’s beautiful when read aloud and makes a perfect companion to the paper sculptures by Ortakales. We not only feel were encountering real flowers but the creatures that inhabit the garden as well. Because the author has gone beyond the “ordinary” flowers that any child could name, the text brings giggles from young listeners with plant names like sneezeweed and goat’s beard (and my daughter named her stuffed cow “Vetch” in homage to one new plant she learned from the book). Definitely a cozy book for parent and child to explore together – we loved it.

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